COLUMBIA — South Carolina does a poor job advancing runners and playing station-to-station baseball.
Of course, the No. 20 Gamecocks don’t get much time to practice it when they’re blasting home runs.
USC (13-3) belted four more dingers Sunday as it completed a sweep of Valparaiso 12-6. USC has 32 homers this season, second in the NCAA, and scored nine of its final 15 runs of the series via the long ball.
Jacob Olson twice notched the concrete under the left-center scoreboard with seam imprints, Ian Jenkins brought rain with a solo moonshot to start Sunday’s scoring and former Summerville star T.J. Hopkins hit his sixth of the year as he became the first Gamecocks player in five seasons to hit for the cycle. In the season’s trend, shaky pitching was backed up by lethal hitting, the Gamecocks still trying to find answers for an injury-ravaged rotation but getting enough offense to overcome.
“Power’s usually the last thing to come for hitters,” USC coach Mark Kingston said. “To replace everything we had to after last year, so far I’m pleased with the power production.”
USC shuffled its rotation against the Crusaders in its final tuneup before SEC play, moving Sunday starter Reid Morgan to Saturday and relying on freshmen Wesley Sweatt and Brett Kerry on Friday and Sunday. Sweatt was solid, but his start was shorted out after rain forced the game to be completed Saturday; Kerry, fitting his bullpen role, was fine for the first three innings Sunday before Valpo started rapping him.
With Carmen Mlodzinski out for a while, the Gamecocks will work on what to do before No. 15 Georgia visits next weekend. “I thought they all pitched well,” Kingston said. “Whether they all stay in those roles, we’re going to have to dig into that this week, figure out what the best combination of starter and bullpen is.”
But while their pitching is in flux, their bats continue to boom.
Hopkins powered a ball into the gap and never broke stride for the triple to complete the cycle, finishing with four RBIs. Following Saturday’s game, where Luke Berryhill tied the game in the ninth with a solo homer and Olson won it two pitches later, USC kept blistering Valpo’s pitching and breaking ties.
Olson’s three-run blast in the seventh snapped a 5-5 game and the Gamecocks tacked on four more in the eighth. Sawyer Bridges (1-0) got the win despite a shaky inning and T.J. Shook earned the save.
“After I hit that single for my third hit, I don’t remember who it was, it was a pitcher, came up to me and said, ‘You’re a triple shy of the cycle,’” said Hopkins, who was thinking three bags the whole way. “Going up to the plate, I did know.”
That opened the gates to a four-run inning that put the Crusaders to bed. The Gamecocks are averaging over 7.5 runs per game, which has been crucial considering their pitching staff.
“We have all the confidence in the world in every pitcher we got,” said Olson, who drove in five Sunday. “Our offensive approach stays the same, just try to get on base and score runs.”